Emotional Health

Dr. Ford: Staying Optimistic—Family, Friendship, and Fashion

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.

 

448701229_aeee214b6b_z“Marigolds and Blue Sky.” Photo by Flickr user Strange Attractor. (CC) 

My parents were born just after World War I and came of age as World War II was beginning. I have often wondered what it was like to grow up in the midst of such serious global conflict. Besides the two wars, the years 1918–45 were marked by the “Spanish Flu”, a worldwide epidemic that killed an estimated 500 million people; the Great Depression; and the polio epidemic. Though “baby boomers,” the generation just after the WW II (from 1946 to 1964), were subject to the threat of the Cold War, fears of nuclear annihilation, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, very few of us actually died as a result of those conflicts, compared with the global destruction that our parents witnessed.

Writing last week in The New York Times, Gregg Easterbrook, the author of The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, asks why there has been such a decline in optimism in recent years. On both sides of the political aisle people are expressing anger, despair, and hopelessness about our future. Yet Easterbrook details the many ways in which the global outlook is rosier than ever.

For example, the “decline of the middle class” is a myth, he says. While wages have not increased relative to inflation, other factors have more than made up for that: “Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution has shown that when lower taxes and higher benefits are factored in, middle-class buying power has risen 36 percent in the current generation.” And while Republicans have made much of the loss of our manufacturing force, “figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis show industrial output a tad below an all-time record level, while nearly double the output of the Reagan presidency, [the] supposed golden age.” Furthermore, Easterbrook asserts, what jobs have supposedly been lost to China are not actually moving there. Technology has caused a worldwide shift in employment, and no one is “stealing” factory-floor jobs; they are gone. Though that is a serious change, he says, the fact remains that American output is greater than that of our two closest rivals—China and Japan—combined.

When I was growing up, the nuclear threat was so prominent that I assumed that having children was irresponsible. As that problem diminished, fears of overpopulation and pollution put the earth’s future in doubt. Now, according to this author, those issues are much more under control than they were back in the “good old days,” and across the globe people are better off: “In 1990, 37 percent of humanity lived in what the World Bank defines as extreme poverty; today it’s 10 percent.”

Why are we so discouraged? Easterbrook says it is optimism itself that has declined—because it is out of fashion. While those on the right have always grumbled about the new order and longed for the past, liberals have traditionally been hopeful, urging change as the way to a brighter future. But in recent years “progressives drank too deeply of instant-doomsday claims. If their predictions had come true, today petroleum would be exhausted, huge numbers of major animal species would be extinct, crop failures would be causing mass starvation, developing-world poverty would be getting worse instead of declining fast.”  In reality, we have failed to give credit to the ways in which advances in many areas have actually helped improve the quality of life for all.

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I think there may be more driving the pessimism than just fashion, however. One factor contributing to the national mood may be a sense of helplessness. Psychologists have long known that when people feel there is nothing they can do about their fate, they are more prone to depression. Martin Seligman, who is sometimes called “the father of positive psychology,” demonstrated that even lab rats could be driven to despair if they felt helpless. Experiments with the elderly have demonstrated that giving them some control over their environment helps improve their mood, and even perhaps their longevity.

We feel less in control over of our environment lately, however. Today, if you vote for the candidate of your choice, assuming you choose to exercise your right to vote (and most do not), it is unclear that it will make a difference. The gridlock in Washington is such that it seems that less and less is accomplished and none of it seems to have much to do with “we, the people.” On the international front, fears of terrorism are also responsible for a sense of helplessness. Though the chance of being harmed by terrorists is still incredibly slight—“ in the last 15 years, even taking into account Sept. 11, an American is five times more likely to be hit by lightning than to be killed by a terrorist,” Easterbrook says. The threat of terrorism represents a new kind of problem. With the “enemy” harder to discern, find, or even to fight, we feel less able to control our destiny. Our usual solution—sending troops into battle with American “shock and awe”—did little to solve the problem and may have made it worse. Despite having the largest military in the world, now stronger than ever before, there is a sense among us that we are “losing.”

But even more than loss of control, it is the loss of connection that brings people down. Statistics show that suicide rates are going up, having just hit a 30-year high. Some point to unemployment as the culprit, yet levels are quite low overall. What is different is the many ways in which the American social structure has changed, leading to less connection and support between people. Even when we’re employed, we are less likely to remain at a job for a long time, establishing deep bonds with other workers. Or a job may involve little or no contact with others—something that was unheard of in the pre-technology age. Employees are asked to move or relocate more frequently, and business travel, that loneliest of pursuits, broke records in 2015 and is expected to rise again this year.

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  • Vi June 1, 2016 at 10:19 am

    Thank you for such an insightful article, well written article. Lots of food for thought.

    Reply
  • Jacquekin May 31, 2016 at 7:23 am

    Bravo Dr. Ford. Fantastic needed perspective for us all in this fast and disconnected life. More is possible to achieve and experience than ever before, if we grab on to that possibility and learn to embrace what feels at times like a minefield but is also ,indeed, a treasure chest of hope.

    Reply
  • Karen Cox May 26, 2016 at 8:20 am

    Thank you. Esterbrook’s article in the Times was informative, yours is enlightening.

    Reply